Wonder Woman and the Rumble

I pretty much despise Zack Snyder’s aesthetics and utterly disagree with his view of heroes and heroism, and from what I saw on the screen in Wonder Woman, so does Patty Jenkins. Her film marks a radical departure from the bleak and colorless world that Snyder created, and it has been very positively received by a large segment of the audience, breaking box office records.

Naturally, the response from women was understandable; Wonder Woman was created as a feminist icon in the 1940s, was embraced as THE feminist icon in the 1970s (even appearing on the cover of the first issue of Ms. Magazine), and has been one of the very few female superheroes marketed to girls for the last 50 years. It was important that this film hit the right notes and have the right message, and Jenkins delivered.

What’s not so understandable is the reaction from a small-but-noisy contingent of men; what is it about this film that provokes such anger and hostility in certain quarters? A lot of writers have discussed the various aspects of what the increased visibility of women in fandom might mean, from changing standards of behavior to changes in content in order to appeal to this seemingly new audience. Some men take these things as threats, apparently because they have a “zero-sum” view of the world; there can only be so many movies, and more of one kind automatically means less of another. They think that if women like a different take on genre films, the studio might decide to make more movies in that vein and stop making them the old way, and once again those mean ol’ girls are taking something away from the He-Man Woman-Haters Club. So what are the things in Wonder Woman that seem like such a threat to these guys?

Alfalfa and Spanky from 'Our Gang' with sign, 'He-Man Woman Haters Club'
Obviously not a new idea.

Aside from all the well-documented and discussed cliches that a lot of other sites have already dissected (a stroll through the gender cliches at TVTropes will unearth a multitude of standard offenses, from voyeuristic camerawork to turning the heroine into a damsel in distress to the ever-present “mansplaining”), I think there’s one thing in particular that’s a sticking point; I think what bothers them more than anything is that Diana’s fight matters, and not just to her.

My friend Morts suggested that the big battle scene in Wonder Woman  has a metatextual component; Ares represents the Zack Snyder view of the DC Universe, dark and grim and carrying the assumption that people are horrible, while Diana stands in opposition to to that mindset, believing in hope and love and that people can be better. It’s a clever conceit that may have some truth to it. It’s worth noting that the climactic battle is the part critics have most complained about, saying that it doesn’t fit with the rest of the movie. Because it doesn’t. It seems to me that the big showdown is Jenkins’ concession to the genre. The audience expects their Thunderdome sequence and she obliges, but first spends considerable time telling us what’s really important, and it isn’t the ‘splosions.

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

For several years, one of the popular forums at CBR has been the Rumbles Forum, in which participants debate “who would win in a fight between _____ and _____?”. The reasons why Lobo and Sonic the Hedgehog are fighting in the first place never matter in the slightest; the players are only interested in the fight. The point is to have a big superhero knockdown, a steel cage grudge-match with lots of noise and busted furniture, where the combatants declare a winner and the fight ends; a super-powered WWE bout.

Superhero movies have adopted this model; virtually all of them build up to a third act showdown in which the face and heel will battle to establish dominance. In most superhero movies, the innocent bystanders have no idea what’s going on, they just hope it stops soon. When a movie deviates from this model and its attendant collateral damage (Dr. Strange outsmarting Dormammu instead of beating him up, for example), these fanboys don’t like it.

Superman v Batman
Now kiss!

The biggest problem with Superman V Batman, to cite the most obvious example, is that there’s really no story. It’s not a movie, it’s a sizzle reel of his favorite fight scenes, completely divorced from the context that made those scenes matter in the comics. Zack Snyder has been very open about the fact that he created the film by picking out a dozen or so favorite sequences from as many comics and stitched them together as best he could. Wonder Woman attempts to strike at the heart of that mindset.

Superman’s big fight in Man of Steel was this sort of macho posturing until he finally had to get real (so that afterward he could be all guilty and mopey about killing Zod). This reflects an element of toxic masculinity, the need to claim hierarchy. Men often fight the way dogs do; ritualized pseudo-combat that goes until one party rolls over and surrenders. Boys on the playground do it; gorillas do it to determine who will be the silverback; guys in bars do it; keyboard warriors on the internet do it verbally, and nobody is supposed to get too upset about it. It’s just jousting, proving “who is the better man,” and “boys will be boys.” Superman and Batman are not heroes in Snyder’s world; they are titans, demigods who flex their powers not to protect the innocent, but to test themselves. It’s Fight Club with capes.

Fight scene from 'Man of Steel'
Superman and Zod break things.

But a real fight is war; not a game, not jousting, not a contest. It’s a battle, not to determine superiority, but to protect oneself and loved ones. Superman’s code about not killing is based on the fact that he has that luxury. He has to pull his punches and hold back all the time or he’d kill everyone he ever fought, at least until he met Zod. Once he understood Zod’s power and willingness to use it, Superman should have been looking for an opportunity to put him in the ground, and should not feel any regret for having done so.

This point is made effectively in Orson Scott Card’s novel, Ender’s Game, though they pretty much glossed over it in the movie version; “Ender” got his nickname because if someone starts a fight with him, he ends it, as quickly and brutally as possible; his goal is not only to win the fight, but also to prevent any future fights. By fighting savagely and remorselessly, he lets everyone know that starting something with him would carry a cost. Ender holds to a philosophy that I believe in: “There’s no such thing as a fair fight.” Do everything you can to avoid a fight, but if you have to fight (and that’s only to defend yourself or someone else from a clear and present threat), Marquess of Queensberry rules do not apply. If you’re attacked, if you can’t de-escalate the conflict, get away, or outsmart the attacker, you fight back. If you have to fight, fight dirty; find a weapon and use it, show no mercy, and make damn sure the instigator never starts anything with you again. As a side-note, if you go into a fight fully willing and able to kill your opponent if necessary, you’re a lot less likely to start those fights.

Wonder Woman crossing No Man's Land
Steve: It’s called ‘No Man’s Land’! You can’t cross it!
Diana: It’s called ‘No MAN’s Land. YOU can’t cross it. Now if you’ll excuse me….

This “contest” element is missing in the setup to Wonder Woman’s confrontation with Ares, at least from her side; she’s not fighting to prove herself, she’s fighting to end a threat once and for all, and it raises the stakes. Here, the people are not just helpless civilians; they’re already engaged in a battle for their lives and country, and Diana represents a chance to alter the outcome, rather than a clash of giants that promises to destroy the neighborhood and accomplish little else. Even with the allegedly studio-demanded CGI excesses, her fight has more urgency and matters more, because she’s not just trying to beat Ares, she’s trying to stop him from carrying out his plan, and she’s also trying to stop him from ever carrying out any future plans. She is trying to kill him, because that’s the only way to stop him from trying again. I think the dudes who just want to see a rumble don’t like that. An honest, dirty, deliberate fight to the death has too many moral ambiguities, and it precludes the possibility of a rematch.

This difference in approach is also evident in the tone of the film. In the real world, we recognize that the dictator running North Korea is a ridiculous cartoon of a spoiled man-child, but we have to take him seriously because he has nukes. He doesn’t have to look like Stalin or sound like Hitler. And so it is in the movies and comics; the heroes can be funny, the tone can be light and the costumes silly, the villains witty or goofy, as long as the threat they represent is credible and urgent. If the danger feels real, the audience will accept any number of absurdities. But if the climactic battle is a pointless display of carnage without consequence carried out to no purpose, then a relentlessly serious tone is required in order to convince the audience that it’s all believable.

Superman and Zod fight.
One o’ dese days, Alice… Bang, zoom, to da moon!

It may well be that after Wonder Woman, nobody’s going to take the currently popular “challenge to determine who will be the alpha” conflicts seriously, and that will make the movies’ whole bleak aesthetic laughable. (I once joked on Facebook that I hope they someday release Batman V. Superman in color.) All those stylistic choices, making a summer morning in Kansas look like Seattle in February, are there to generate an illusion of seriousness because nothing in the story matters; it’s all just sturm und drang dressing up a film that’s as deep as a puddle of ant pee. But when the fight is real and really matters, as Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier demonstrated, bright colors in broad daylight can be just as serious; the desaturated gloom is unnecessary. The guys who hated Wonder Woman are really just afraid they won’t get more iterations of Eternally Grim Metropolis Smackdown if the studios decide to make superhero movies that have a point instead.

Now, I could be completely wrong about this; maybe these guys don’t like Wonder Woman because she makes them feel inferior, or they are put off by Diana’s absolute refusal to defer to the men, kowtow to societal dictates as to how proper ladies should comport themselves, or feel that the male characters are being diminished and trivialized for political “SJW” reasons (utterly disregarding 75 years of Wonder Woman history, twenty centuries of Amazonian legends, and Steve Trevor and his team’s demonstrated courage and heroism in their part of the film; at no point does the film diminish or sideline the men in order to make Diana look better), and my observation about the nature of the fight scenes is so much balloon juice. Nonetheless, I hope that in the sequel (and in the upcoming Justice League movie) Diana continues to fight for reasons that matter beyond her own ego.

9 Comments

  1. Jeff Nettleton

    I haven’t seen the film yet; but, the subset that seems to get the most upset seem to be the same ones who whine about female characters whose main attribute is something other than having their costume a foot up their backside and their cleavage somewhere down to their navel. They adore the cookie cutter Image parade of bimbos in spandex but would cringe in terror at something like Action Girl, because she acts like the real women who scorn them for their juvenile and offensive behavior (perpetuated as a defense mechanism, lest they actually reveal themselves to the opposite, or even same, sex).

  2. M-Wolverine

    Huh, maybe I’m not perusing the dark corners of the Internet as much as I should, but other than the usual crews who will object to anything on the opposite side of the political spectrum, I haven’t seen a lot of blow back for Wonder Woman. I think there was a lot more for Rey in Star Wars the Force Awakens. That I heard a lot of silly stuff about; Wonder Woman not so much.

    I think part of it is the movie is well done, for a female or male lead. I was a little worried we might have some Ghostbusters remake syndrome with this, where it could be mediocre or even bad, but it’d still get positive reviews because of GIRL POWER or something. Even though the lead in stuff looked really good. Luckily you could heap praise on it and not just because it was featuring a Woman, but because it was a Wonder. And maybe your theory has merit to it, because the movie is so well done that it makes a Woman independent, capable, and strong, but doesn’t do so by trying to make the guys look weak. (Something a lot of male lead movies could learn from). Sure Diana could beat Trevor up with her pinky. But it doesn’t make Steve any less of a character or a man. He has his own strength (and is the secret weapon of the movie, in that he’s pretty and could have just been the Bond “guy” love interest, but really acts his butt off in the movie).

    And that’s not always the case. Supergirl, an otherwise pretty good show, has a ridiculous finish with Kara easily handling Superman, and having them have clunky dialogue over and over about “how, no I had full capabilities” and “you’re Earth’s mightiest defender!” It was painful, and all the more so because it was done at the expense of SUPERMAN (boy, WB really doesn’t like him). That how NOT to make a female character look strong.

    Which is where I might disagree with you a little bit. I COMPLETELY agree on your philosophy of battle and fighting. However I don’t think Superman should adhere to it. Otherwise all his fights should be over in one punch. What they don’t get, and what Wonder Woman did get, was that we may all be cynical do what we can to get by bastards, but we actually want to admire the “corny” guy or gal. We want Superman and Wonder Woman to be better than us, something to strive to. They weren’t meant to be and don’t need to be in the range that goes from Spider-Man to Wolverine. We can’t be a Super man or a Wonder woman, but we could be a super Man or wonder Woman, and that’s the part we should try achieving.

    I do really agree with Mort. It’s so prevalent, it’s almost hard to believe the commentary in the DCU wasn’t intentional in Wonder Woman. Maybe surprising that WB let it go, but really, what did they have to lose? (And maybe they were worried about it, because remember those rash of rumors that WW was a mess? Can’t help but feel like there was a group of studio execs who felt the same way as the fans this article is rightfully knocking). I certainly don’t remember what username I should attribute this comment quote to, because I can’t even remember the article I cribbed it from. But this guy just reading a webpage talking about movies, much like myself now, really grasped the denouncement Wonder Woman had on the Snyder-verse:

    “’The world sucks,’ previous DC movies tell us. ‘True,’ counters Wonder Woman. ‘But it’s still worth fighting for.’”

    1. I think generally Superman should be the noble guy who does his best to find non-violent resolutions; when he’s facing a Zod and there’s no alternate solution, he needs to take a page from Wonder Woman’s book and play for keeps.

      My brother does Krav Maga; he takes crazy classes like “how to defend yourself in low-light conditions when your opponent has a knife.” Because he knows he can lay out 95% of the people who cross his path without breaking a sweat, and could permanently cripple most of them with very little effort, he stays out of fights. For example, he and his wife are sitting in a bar when a guy starts an argument with another customer, and it’s escalating rapidly. Bro takes a look and realizes that there’s no bouncer, and the regular employees are a bit out of their league, so he intervenes. He goes over to the guy and very calmly and quietly says “look, friend, I know I can kick your ass, but I don’t want to do that, so instead, how about if you calm down, sit down, and let me buy you a drink? Can we do that?” Dude looks in his eyes and figures out right quick that a free drink is a far better option than fighting somebody with that look on his face.

      To me, that’s Superman; he’ll always try to avoid the fight, but if it’s on, he’ll end it fast without all the showboating and posturing. He’s got nothing to prove.

      1. M-Wolverine

        True, I can always see Superman trying the “buy you a drink” method first. And part of the problem with how he has been portrayed is that he’s often not a guy who will not get pushed around and end things fast. It’s one of the things that they got right in Action Comics #775, and why people embraced it so fast.

        The difference is I don’t believe there’s the situation where Superman has to take the bar guy or Zod and kill him. Not because that’s how it goes in the real world, but because he’s Superman. He is better, and he can always find a way. I guess I don’t believe in the Kobayashi Maru scenario with Superman. That may be fantasy, but it’s about a strong guy who flies around in a red cape saving people.

        1. Pol Rua

          I agree.
          To me, the superhero archetype is about “doing the impossible thing”. If you back a superhero into a corner and give them only one way out of it, they’ll find the OTHER way.

          The challenge for a creator, then, is to present this in a way that doesn’t seem contrived or ‘hokey’, but then, that’s why they’re professionals who are paid to tell stories.

          The ending of Dr.Strange is a perfect example. The hero knows he’s an insect before his opponent and could never fight him… so he doesn’t… but he still defeats him.

          So if you force Superman into a no-win situation… he finds a way to win anyway. Because he’s Superman.

          1. As I said, he has that luxury. He’s powerful enough to generally have an array of options. If ‘Superman v Batman’ were a real battle with real stakes, he could have been holding severely damaged armor full of jellied Bruce Wayne in a matter of seconds. He always pulls his punches, because even a greatly restrained Superman is going to beat almost anybody. When it comes to Zod or Doomsday, hesitation is a bad idea.

          2. M-Wolverine

            Except if it’s only a good idea to do so when you are vastly superior, it’s in no way heroic. There’s nothing heroic about Superman not just incinerating Toyman, just because it’s so much easier for him to stop his lesser threat without killing. Just like your brother threatening to kick some dweeb’s ass isn’t heroic, because he’s at no real risk.

            Heroism is facing overwhelming odds and finding a way to be better. Defeating Doomsday or Zod without sinking to their level? THAT’S being a hero. And Superman would find a way, because he’s the best of them and us. Otherwise nothing Batman does is heroic. He should just be a more talented Punisher.

            The problem is, by their power, all these guys are inherently above the law. And if they have no respect for law and life, they become judge, jury, and executioner. A cop can make the call and cross that line for the safety of himself and others, but he’s also subjected to oversight. Who tells Superman he was wrong? Nobody, unless he draws his own line. Who watches the watchmen?

            Spider-Man: Homecoming covers this really well. (WARNING SPOILERS BIG and SMALL). Stark has put in lethal protocols into the suit, that Peter keeps having to shut offs. It’s an ongoing thing to his end choice that continues to show he’s a better man than Stark (and Tony even sees that). And in the end (LAST WARNING) he saves his foes life, even at great future risk to himself. Because the risk to himself isn’t worth him crossing that line.

            I don’t want the Superfriends with all the same heroes with all the same personalities just in different costumes. But Superman, Spider-Man, and to some extent in some ways Batman, Wonder Woman, Cap, they can do better than us., be better than us, and set the example for us.

    1. frasersherman

      Reading the Showcase collections it’s interesting to see the ways they sometimes worked that. Like multiple stories in which Superman has to hide that he’s around (“If they suspect I’m here, they’ll shut down this operation and I’ll never learn the secret of Project X!”) so he has to use his powers in ways that don’t show he’s there.

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